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Lawmakers Delve Into Mental Health-Substance Abuse Issues In Child Welfare System

Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) leading a hearing Wednesday on mental health and substance abuse issues.
Florida Channel
Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) leading a hearing Wednesday on mental health and substance abuse issues.
Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) leading a hearing Wednesday on mental health and substance abuse issues.
Credit Florida Channel
Florida Channel
Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) leading a hearing Wednesday on mental health and substance abuse issues.

Florida lawmakers are looking into reforms related to mental health and substance abuse issues and how it relates to the state’s child welfare system.

There’ve been several high profile child deaths that have occurred in recent months under the supervision of the Florida Department of Children and Families. Among them is Phoebe Jonchuck, whose father is accused of throwing her over a bridge during what appeared to be a psychotic breakdown.

According to a state report and DCF’s own Secretary Mike Carroll, the state’s abuse hotline ignored a couple calls to the hotline about Jon Jonchuck, who is bipolar, before Phoebe’s death.

Carroll says in addition to mental health, Phoebe’s death highlighted some other areas DCF struggles to address, including substance abuse issues—areas Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) hopes to address.

“We’re in the process of planning a work plan for addressing mental health and substance abuse, but this is going to be a major endeavor for this committee and I want to make sure that everyone is participating and everyone is part of the solutions that we are looking forward to,” said Harrell.

Harrell chairs the House Children, Families, and Seniors Subcommittee, and recently held a three-hour hearing looking into these issues. Part of it was mental health and substance abuse panel discussion.

Shawn Salamida was one of the panel members. He’s with FamiliesFirst Network Community Based Care Lead Agency. CBCs, as their known, work with DCF to provide services for foster care youth and parents.

Providing an example of why he says mental health and substance abuse services are necessary in his line of work, he talked of a situation normally encountered in the child welfare system: a mother and her infant who came to the attention of DCF due to the mother’s drug use.

“She was leaving the child unsupervised and not providing proper care while she used drugs. Her child was removed and placed in foster care,” said Salamida. “Mom needed substance abuse treatment to get off drugs and to learn the skills necessary to be a suitable parent. The child needed infant mental health services to address his trauma and establish a healthy parent-child relationship. It wasn’t long before we learned that when Mom was a child, she had been sexually abused by a relative over a long period of time. She had never received any treatment to address her trauma, which had led to depression, drug use, and other maladaptive behaviors.”

Some advocates say reform is needed. But, University of South Florida Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute Dr. Mary Armstrong recommends allowing a new law take its course. It’s an overhaul of the state’s child welfare agency to help prevent child abuse related deaths.

“I really think we need to stay the course,” said Armstrong. “Right now, I’m not suggesting that we do another major system reform here in Florida. Other members of the panel may think it’s necessary. I think we need to stay the course, and work on improving what’s already in place.”

She says some areas that could be expanded include making the public more aware about mental health issues to reduce the stigma as well as creating some sort of collaborative structure at the state level “that’s responsible for persons with behavioral health problems.”

She added, “Key agencies that need to be included are the Department of Children and Families, AHCA, Veterans Affairs, Education, Law Enforcement, the Department of Health.”

Another panelist was Linda McKinnon with Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, Florida’s largest “managing entity” which manages local contracts for substance abuse and mental health services.

She says those services are suffering from a lack of funding as well as a fragmented funding system.

“Funds for mental health and substance abuse run through the various agencies like the Department [DCF], AHCA, local counties, the Department of Corrections, DJJ, DOE, and the Department of Health. None of that information is integrated. The fragmentation means people who need help fall through the cracks. A solution would be that all behavioral health funds be channeled and administered through a managing entity or its like,” said McKinnon.

And, McKinnon says the system is also under-resourced.

“Florida only spends about $39.55 per capita while the national average is $120 per capita. The solution would be to start this year by appropriating $42 million to Community Based funding mental health and substance abuse treatment services,” added McKinnon.

Meanwhile, with all the suggestions Representative Harrell expects to get from her fellow lawmakers on ways to revamp the mental health and substance abuse systems, she says she doesn’t see this as a one-time deal.

“This is not going to be just this year,” said Harrell. “We will do some preliminary things this year. This is an ongoing project. As you heard today, this is a very difficult, broad spectrum problem.”

She expects the Legislature will continue these efforts in the coming years as well.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner .

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